It’s OK, I suppose, for any Orioles fan to wish upon a star and see a 60-game mosh pit of a schedule as an opportunity to battle for a playoff spot. But if you take your rose colored glasses off and pour the Kool-Aid in the sink, you’ll realize the Orioles are not at all capable of competing for a playoff spot, even if 12 of 15 American League teams advanced to the postseason.
You have to see the context the Orioles live in. They started the 2017 season off at a 22-10 clip, but from that point through the end of the 2019 season, the Orioles are 154-300.
And what could be worse for a rebuilding team than to have a season of development ripped away from key members of the future foundation? Look, no minor-league season sucks for all 30 teams, but for Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, this is bad — really bad.
Having said all that, I think the Orioles stand a chance to exceed the 20.5 over-under win total the oddsmakers have placed on them. The simple reason is that last year the O’s pitching staff was bad — historically bad. In 1,443 innings, Orioles pitchers posted a collective 5.59 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. They gave up 305 home runs — one every 4.73 innings pitched during the course of 162 games.
But, here’s the good news — Ty Blach, Branden Kline, Josh Lucas, Luis Ortiz, Evan Phillips, Yefry Ramirez, Josh Rogers, Tayler Scott, Dan Straily, Matt Wotherspoon, Mike Wright, Jimmy Yacabonis and Gabriel Ynoa won’t contribute much or at all to this year’s numbers. Last year, this list of not-so-good arms threw 359.1 innings and pitched to a 7.54 ERA.
There in a nutshell is the silver lining for the 2020 season. General manager Mike Elias and his staff didn’t go out and get great pitchers via free agency or make any big trades for pitching. But they brought in some pitchers who will do substantially better than a 7.54 ERA. The team should play closer games this year, and closer games may lead to a few more wins. I’ll say the Orioles can get to 22 or 24 wins.
Here are my five most interesting questions I have for this 60-game dash for the cash:
1. John Means was awarded the honor of starting the opener in Boston July 24, but he was placed on the 10-day injured list due to arm fatigue. Will Means become a significant member of the O’s future rotation?
About 10 or 12 days before the 2019 season, John Means started to surface with a chance to make the Opening Day roster as a left-hander out of the bullpen. But one of the club’s pitching folks, Chris Holt, taught Means a changeup in spring training and Means was able to develop it quickly. It became his devastating out pitch — enough of an out pitch that Means was selected as the Orioles’ lone representative on the American League All-Star team. He was good enough to go 12-11 on a team that finished 54 games under .500. His ERA was a very impressive 3.60.
The trouble with Means’ otherwise near brilliant season was his two visits to the injured list. He threw just 155 innings. The hope was he’d add about 20-30 innings throughout the course of 32-33 starts in a 162-game season. If healthy, he would have gotten maybe 11-12 starts. The club is playing down his current arm fatigue and not being alarmist, but now that number of starts may not hit double digits. So, let’s think in terms nine or 10 starts. That looks like a total of 50-55 innings pitched for Means this year.
Verdict: We will have a much better idea after the 2021 season.
2. Will former first-round pick DJ Stewart take advantage of his last real O’s opportunity to carve out a place for himself?
Stewart was taken 25th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. As good as he was at Florida State, his play to this point has been disappointing. Stewart is no longer a kid, and come this November he’ll be 27.
The killer is last season. After getting off to a slow start at Norfolk, he went on a tear and was called up by the O’s in late May. He got three hits during his first game with the big club and it looked like he was on his way. After that, however, he went just 1-for-20 and then collided with Hanser Alberto while chasing after a fly ball in Texas. He missed two months with a bum ankle. He came back on Aug. 6, and after one at-bat, he dove for a fly ball and suffered a concussion when the ball hit him on the head. He didn’t play again until Aug. 16.
Stewart somehow pulled it together and during his last 101 at-bats, he hit .257 with a .345 on-base percentage.
After the season, he had to undergo surgery to fully repair the injury from the collision in Texas. He would have probably started this season at Triple-A Norfolk to get fully in shape. Instead with the pandemic, he could round into shape on his own time. With Trey Mancini out for the year, Anthony Santander slowly rounding into form and Dwight Smith Jr. just returning from a battle with the coronavirus, Stewart will play a lot.
Verdict: There is something about this young man and the way he goes about his business that still has me thinking he will improve enough to at least be a solid platoon player. The bat should play well enough, but he needed to get into better shape this year. Not that he is overweight, but both of his injuries in 2019 were caused by being a step slow coming in on balls. I say he becomes a contributor — still a failed No. 1 pick, but a major leaguer.
3. Can Hunter Harvey and Austin Hays stay healthy enough so the club can make an accurate assessment of just how good both can be?
Let’s start with Hays, who has battled myriad injuries in recent years. He had to leave the O’s exhibition game in Philadelphia July 19 when he was hit on the knee by a pitch, but he was back in action by the exhibition game in D.C. July 21. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that Hays can start 50-plus games in this truncated season.
Harvey won’t break with the team. Instead, he is headed to the injured list with some muscle soreness around his right elbow. Harvey is a golden talent — you can take one look at him throw and realize he could be very special. The club decided last season to pitch him out of the bullpen and the move seemed to work.
Harvey made his major-league debut last summer and appeared in seven games, registering a 1.42 ERA, 1.105 WHIP and 11 strikeouts in 6.1 innings. Picking Harvey in the first round in 2013 appeared to finally be paying dividends.
Verdict: Hays will have to stay healthy for us to see if he can become a big part of the club’s future. Until I see Harvey make it a month or so without any problems, I’m sorry, I’m a cynic.
4. Will shortstop Jose Iglesias give the Orioles high-caliber defense at a premium position and also contribute a bit on offense?
Since JJ Hardy’s back began to really cause him some serious trouble in 2016, the shortstop position has been problematic. When Andy MacPhail took over as O’s GM in 2007, the position was so poorly played that MacPhail signed shortstop Cesar Izturis just to stabilize the defense. Let’s face it, the pitching was putrid in 2019, but what made it worse was how many times O’s pitchers had to get four or five outs just to get out of an inning.
Iglesias will be flashier than Hardy, but you know what? He’ll be just as steady too.
Additionally, Iglesias has a .273 career batting average. He’s not going to exhibit the kind of power Hardy had in his prime, but he hit a career high of 11 homers in 2019 while playing in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Verdict: It was interesting that when Iglesias’ name was first mentioned as the answer to the O’s shortstop problem last October, word leaked that Iglesias had some clubhouse issues. Yet, right after the Winter Meetings, something changed and the club gave him a one-year contract with a club option for 2021. Personally, I love this move and hope after this one season, the O’s add two more years. He’ll play this season at age 30. Three more seasons would see him possibly stay in Baltimore until he’s 33.
5. Is what we saw from 3B/DH Renato Nunez in 2019 indicative of his ability to become a force in the middle of the Orioles’ order?
When former O’s GM Dan Duquette picked up Nunez from the Rangers in the middle of the 2018 season, I glanced at his minor-league numbers and could tell he had some power. In the Oakland organization, he had home run seasons of 19, 29, 18, 23 and 32, but his accompanying on-base percentages were .301, .336, .332, .278 and .319, respectively.
With the Orioles in 2018, Nunez hit batted .275/.336/.445 with seven homers and 13 doubles. While playing regularly last year, he batted .244 with 31 home runs and 24 doubles and knocked in 90 runs, but that gets stunted by a .311 on-base percentage.
Verdict: If you read me, you know how that .311 OBP sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s because it’s usually a predictor of just how much impact a player may have. If the Orioles don’t have anyone pushing him out, he can definitely remain an Oriole fixture for the next two or three seasons. But with Trey Mancini out all season, this is an opportunity for Nunez to become something more than marginal. I’ll be interested in watching and hoping he answers in the affirmative. It also looks like the club wants to see if they can play him at least part of the time at third. That would certainly help him create some more value.
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